England's biggest battles for World Cup starting spots: Alexander-Arnold risks Qatar heartbreak

Trent Alexander-Arnold England 2021Getty

After losing on penalties in the Euro 2020 final, England are under pressure to go one better in Qatar and lift the World Cup.

The success of the Lionesses and men's Under-19 side during the summer proved that this is not a nation genetically predisposed to major tournament failure.

But Gareth Southgate needs to get his squad spot on and there are still a number of big decisions for the manager to make before the World Cup gets under way in November.

Alongside France and Brazil, England have some of the most intense positional battles in international football, with the Trent Alexander-Arnold versus Reece James debate having become a particularly heated topic of discussion in recent months.

Right-back is far from the only area of uncertainty, though. Indeed, GOAL has taken a look at six massive selection calls that could define England's campaign in Qatar...

  • Reece James Trent Alexander-Arnold England 2022Getty

    Trent Alexander-Arnold vs Reece James vs Kyle Walker

    Southgate has been blessed with a plethora of high-quality options at right-back, meaning the Three Lions boss must make an extremely tough choice ahead of the World Cup.

    Trent Alexander Arnold's wretched start to the season with Liverpool will have done him no favours in the battle for the No.2 shirt, particularly as he has never previously hit the heights of his club career at international level.

    That likely leaves Reece James and Kyle Walker as the two favourites for now. Southgate has gushed about James in the past, claiming that "he's got everything" to be a world-class player for years to come.

    Don't rule out Walker, though. He has more big tournament experience and shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 32.

  • Luke Shaw England 2022Getty Images

    Luke Shaw vs Ben Chilwell vs Kieran Trippier

    Things are just as competitive over on the left side of the defence.

    Back in summer 2021, it seemed like Luke Shaw would have the left-back position on lockdown for some time, with the Manchester United man capping off his best-ever season with a goal in the Euro 2020 final. Since then, though, Shaw's stock has dropped like a stone.

    This has reopened the door for previous incumbent Ben Chilwell, who has made a promising return from injury at Chelsea this term. Chilwell's ability to operate as a wing-back also gives him an edge.

    However, Kieran Trippier is also in contention for a starting berth. The 31-year-old is a right-back by trade, and in fine form this season for Newcastle, but Southgate deployed him at left-back in England's Euros opener against Croatia and during the subsequent Nations League campaign.

    At the very least, Trippier's versatility and dead-ball accuracy puts him very much in the mix for a starting spot.

  • Harry Maguire Manchester United Liverpool 2022-23Getty Images

    Harry Maguire vs Fikayo Tomori vs Ben White

    For years, Harry Maguire was the immovable object at the heart of England's backline. These days, there is no way that the Manchester United captain should be in the side on current form – but Southgate could let him keep his place alongside John Stones out of loyalty.

    Should that happen, Fikayo Tomori would have the right to feel aggrieved. The former Chelsea man could not have done much more to catch Southgate's eye since joining AC Milan in January 2021, helping the Rossoneri end their Scudetto drought in his first full season at San Siro.

    Ben White also has a strong case to be included ahead of Maguire. The Arsenal centre-back is as comfortable on the ball as his United counterpart, and his club side has a far superior defensive record in recent times.

    Despite competition from the aforementioned duo, as well as from the likes of Marc Guehi, Conor Coady and Eric Dier, Southgate is persisting with Maguire for now. Should he remain on the bench at Old Trafford, though, he will surely lose his England starting spot too?..

  • Jude Bellingham EnglandGetty

    Jude Bellingham vs Jordan Henderson vs Kalvin Phillips

    In midfield, Declan Rice is a guaranteed pick if fit. However, who should partner him in midfield is open to debate.

    In the lead-up to Euro 2020, Kalvin Phillips emerged as a surprise starter and performed well enough to clinch the Three Lions' player of the year award in 2021. Things have changed since then, of course.

    For one, Phillips endured an injury-hit 2021-22 campaign and the questions over whether he would feature frequently enough at new club Manchester City to warrant a place in the England team have been validated during the first few weeks of the new season.

    What's more, he's now been sidelined with a shoulder problem, which could require surgery, so his participation is now very much in doubt.

    Jude Bellingham is also another year older and his dominance of Bundesliga midfields is becoming harder and harder for Southgate to ignore. It seems inevitable that Bellingham will establish himself in the starting XI eventually, but is this World Cup still too early for him? Despite a stellar showing against Man City in the Champions League, his international manager may believe so.

    At the other end of the age spectrum is Jordan Henderson. Southgate was quick to address rumours that he had dropped the Liverpool captain from his summer squad in June, but he has his own injury issues at the moment, meaning his hopes of playing a key role in Qatar are also hanging in the balance.

  • Mason Mount Chelsea Southampton 2022-23Getty Images

    Mason Mount vs Phil Foden vs Jack Grealish

    Despite regularly resisting the temptation to deploy a creative midfielder during his spell in charge, Southgate now generally goes with at least one playmaker in behind Harry Kane. More often than not, that man has been Mason Mount – whom Southgate has never spurned an opportunity to praise.

    It is not hard to see why Mount is so popular with all of his managers. The Chelsea man is adept at taking on tactical instructions and is unmatched among his peers for his work out of possession. He's also a streaky scorer and assister.

    Despite all of Mount's good points, the calls remain loud for one, or both, of Jack Grealish and Phil Foden to be given a run in the team.

    The Manchester City pair can each play as part of the frontline or in an advanced position in midfield, and it is in the latter role where the case for inclusion is strengthening – largely due to Mount's stodgy start to the season.

    This, then, will be a fascinating battle to observe over the coming months because, right now, it's wide open.

  • Marcus Rashford England Euro 2020Getty Images

    Marcus Rashford vs Raheem Sterling vs Jadon Sancho vs Bukayo Saka

    What a turnaround for Marcus Rashford in the opening weeks of the season. After being left out of the England squad entirely at the end of the previous campaign, his productive start to 2022-23 under new Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has propelled him right back into contention.

    Another Red Devil who recently found himself binned by Southgate, Jadon Sancho, has also boosted his chances of travelling to a maiden World Cup, with the winger showing signs in recent weeks of rediscovering the form that made him a star at Borussia Dortmund.

    Bukayo Saka remains a serious contender for a starting spot as well, having helped Arsenal reach the international break top of the Premier League table.

    The trio are likely targeting only one wide forward spot, as it is pretty hard to imagine Raheem Sterling –another of Southgate's trusted lieutenants – not starting in Qatar. Stranger things have happened, however, and it remains to be seen how he performs under new Chelsea boss Graham Potter.

    Jarrod Bowen could also find himself in the mix, though much will depend on West Ham's form, with David Moyes' side in dire form.